- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2002

Le Pen proved mightier than the swords of virtually every mainstream French political figure in an electoral surprise that could reshape France, scramble alliances across the continent and alter the tone of Europe's relations with the United States.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, a one-time paratrooper long considered a fringe figure of French nationalism, emerged from Sunday's first round of voting as one of two men still standing with a chance to become president of France in the May 5 runoff.
Among those he bested were a clutch of 10 leftists and far-left contenders in the 16-candidate field, including Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
The political fallout came swiftly yesterday as Mr. Jospin announced he would retire from politics and even leading left-wing politicians rushed to endorse conservative President Jacques Chirac against Mr. Le Pen.
"It is the honor of our country that is at stake," said Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former finance minister and spokesman for Mr. Jospin, explaining why he would support Mr. Chirac.
Followers of Mr. Le Pen's National Front took to the streets in celebration yesterday, while there were scattered protests around the country against the party's showing.
Few give Mr. Le Pen any chance against Mr. Chirac in the next round of voting, but his unexpectedly strong showing has already left France's leading politicians struggling to make sense of what happened.
"This was in reality a defeat for the totality of the French political establishment," said Simon Serfaty, director of the European Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Le Pen had no business getting 17 percent of the vote and shouldn't have been able to run a better campaign than any of his major opponents, but that's exactly what happened," Mr. Serfaty said.
John Hulsman, a specialist on European affairs at the Heritage Foundation, agreed: "This vote says a whole lot more about the bankruptcy of the Fifth Republic than it says about Le Pen.
"The French are no more racist or nationalist than they were on Saturday, but when you have two mainstream leaders without a single new thing to say about the country's problems, this is what can happen."
That view was reinforced by an analysis of Sunday's vote. Mr. Le Pen's share of the vote was only two percentage points higher than his total in the previous first-round presidential ballot in 1995.
The difference this time was the stunning fall in support for the major candidates, a crowded field that drained support for Mr. Jospin in particular, and an abstention rate nearly 30 percent that French commentators said reflected deep voter apathy.
In exultant press interviews and rallies yesterday, Mr. Le Pen said his breakthrough came because his issues law and order, deep distrust of the European Union, controls on immigration had hit home.
"This is first of all a rejection by the French people of the ineffective way they've been governed," he told reporters, crediting his strong showing to the "miners, the steelworkers, and the laborers at all those industries that have been ruined by euro-globalization."
Although known as the man who "says what everyone thinks but dares not say," Mr. Le Pen made an effort to moderate his firebrand image, heavily tinged with ultranationalist and anti-Semitic overtones, that brought him to prominence in the 1980s.
During the campaign, he positioned himself as a friend of the worker, socially on the left but economically on the right.
Both Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin campaigned heavily on the problem of France's rising crime rate but offered what were seen as unsatisfactory programs on an issue that has long been a Le Pen campaign staple.
Another factor was the overwhelming burden of a primarily Muslim immigrant population in France of over 5 million. Mr. Le Pen has called for immigration curbs and the deportation of convicted immigrant criminals, issues that have attracted more attention after September 11 and the explosion of new violence in the Middle East.
Mr. Le Pen's tough stands have not translated into new support from France's 700,000-strong Jewish community, where memories remain strong of the candidate's infamous 1987 comment that the Nazi gas chambers were "a detail of history."
Although Mr. Chirac is expected to crush Mr. Le Pen in the runoff, the impact of Sunday's vote will linger.
Mr. Serfaty noted that French voters will choose a new parliament in June, with the very real prospect that the demoralized left will be unable to keep its majority.
Mr. Chirac will be simultaneously tempted to move to the center to capture some of Mr. Jospin's voters and to move to the right to marginalize Mr. Le Pen for good as a conservative alternative.
According to Regis Bechet, a member of Mr. Chirac's Rally for the Republic party, "If Le Pen obtains 25 percent in the second round, we will have to take a sharply critical look at the situation."
The European Union is preparing for a major debate over its ultimate political and economic aims at a time when one of its most active and influential members is divided and dispirited at home.
Mr. Jospin's loss and resignation also furthers a pronounced conservative trend in European politics in the past three years. France under Mr. Jospin would have likely found common cause with Germany's center-left government.
France under Mr. Chirac is more likely to throw in with a more market-oriented approach to EU affairs favored by Prime Ministers Tony Blair in Britain, Jose Maria Aznar in Spain and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy.
"For the United States, [the French election] could rate as a positive outcome," said Mr. Serfaty. "France will be marginalized by this election and you could have a Europe that tends to be more cooperative than confrontational with Washington as a result."


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